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The underlying causes of strategic surprise in EU foreign policy

The study of why and when governments are caught out by strategic surprise has been a major occupation in research. Still little is known, however, about the structural vulnerabilities to such surprises in international organisations such as the European Union.

Nikki Ikani, Cristoph O. Meyer
11 November 2022
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The European Union (EU) and its member states have experienced a series of significant surprises in their foreign affairs after a period of stability and confidence in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Major cognitive disruptions include the Russo-Georgian Five-Day War (2008), the Arab uprisings (2010–2012), the European migration crisis (2015), the rise of ISIS (2012–2015) and Russia’s annexation and occupation of parts of Ukraine (2013–2014).

In order to understand the most common underlying problems causing surprise in the EU context, this paper adapts and tests insights from the strategic surprise literature. It elaborates a theoretical framework with five hypotheses about why the leadership of EU institutions has been prone to being caught by surprises in foreign affairs: limitations in collection capacity, institutional fragmentation of policymaking, organisational culture, member state politicisation, and cognitive biases arising from collective ideas and norms. These hypotheses are tested using a post-mortem approach investigating two significant strategic surprises: the start and spread of the Arab uprisings of 2010/11 and Ukraine–Russia crisis of 2013/14.

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